How to Run Efficient Meetings

November 7, 2017

The standard advice about meetings isn’t wrong — it’s just not getting through to people.

Everyone knows that everyone hates meetings. So why does no one seem to know what to do about it? Just try Googling “how to run a meeting” and you’ll find yourself reading over the same old tips and tricks: Be prepared; have a set agenda and schedule; don’t go over time; only invite those whose presence is truly necessary.

Yet when 91 percent of workers admit that they regularly daydream in meetings, it’s clear that the wires are getting crossed somewhere. (Let’s not even mention the 39 percent of people who use meetings to catch up on their beauty sleep.)

Meetings are so much more than a necessary evil; when done right, they’re the best way of improving communication and connections between your team members. The standard advice about meetings isn’t wrong — it’s just not getting through to people.

With help from visionaries and startups both big and small, here are a few ideas for making your meetings more efficient and more successful.

Keep on Time

While at Google during its startup days, Marissa Mayer scheduled an incredible average of 70 meetings per week. She didn’t have a time machine; she just knew about Parkinson’s law, which says that work expands to fill the time available for it. Mayer used “micro-meetings” that might last only five or 10 minutes — and not a second more — in order to extract the most valuable and relevant information from her colleagues.

Not to be outdone, a number of startups have invented some creative and playful ways to keep meetings strictly within the time allotted for them. The next time you’re stuck in a meeting that’s overstayed its welcome, imagine what would happen if the lights automatically turned off, or if everyone’s chairs were removed, or if the last person to speak had to do pushups.

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Keep It Simple

Never schedule a meeting when an email will do. You’ll be saving yourself the time and energy — and making the world a little less complex.

Steve Jobs was renowned for his preference for simplicity and smallness, and Apple company meetings were no exception to this mantra. Advertising director Ken Segall has told the anecdote of Jobs sending away one of his employees from a meeting just by telling her “I don’t think we need you here.” Near the end of his life, Jobs suggested that Barack Obama hold a meeting with a few influential CEOs at the White House to discuss innovation in business, then uninvited himself when he decided the guest list was growing too long. Of course, Jobs was a little eccentric, but it’s hard to deny that he got results. The next time you hold a meeting, ask yourself: Does this person need to be here? Do we need to talk about this now, or can this be discussed asynchronously on Github, Slack, or whatever other platform your team uses to communicate?

Side note: I’d tackle that last question with a wee bit of caution. So many of us now rely on asynchronous conversations so much that it can actually be counter-productive. A Slack channel can be noisy and full of distractions, sentiments are often misunderstood, and sometimes a long chat thread can be avoided altogether with just a quick five minute face-to-face meeting.
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Aside from keeping meetings short and small, a concise and clearly communicated agenda can make a world of difference. An agenda should not simply answer the question, what are we going to talk about? But instead, the agenda should clearly outline the purpose of the meeting and the specific goals you want to achieve by the end. At Routific, we begin every team meeting by writing down the exact purpose and goals on a whiteboard. Keeping things simple is often as easy as creating clarity of purpose, and we need to be intellectually honest with ourselves if the purpose of our meeting is 100% clear. A properly designed agenda deserves a write up on its own, in fact, Harvard Business Review does a great job of outlining a framework to design an agenda.

Keep on Course

We’ve all been in meetings where someone goes off on a convoluted tangent, holding the rest of the attendees hostage. To quash this behavior before it starts, appoint someone to be the meeting’s leader and decision-maker. This person should seek to keep the meeting snappy and redirect the flow of conversation back to the original topic.

Each meeting should also have a designated note-taker who’s responsible for documenting each conclusion and follow up action. It’s important to note that the note-taker is not a silent observer. In fact, some of the most efficient meetings I’ve attended have been led by the note-taker, as the written notes are a perfect tool to actively reflect and guide the conversation. The requirement, however, is that the notes must be clearly visible while they’re being written down. Write them on a whiteboard or just open a shared document and project the notes on a screen in the room, whatever you, do just make sure the meeting notes map directly to your conversation.

Something almost magical occurs when everyone in the room agrees to how a conclusion should be written down. You’ll quickly suss out misunderstandings between those in the room as to what the conclusion was or what to do next. And once things are hashed out the level of commitment to a plan sky rockets.

Establish Conflict Norms

Conflict Norms are like ground rules. You establish them together, as a team, so everyone has a common understanding of how we are expected to communicate with one another.

Once those conflict norms are established, meetings can be much more productive because everyone in the room has seen the rule book — in fact, they helped create it! Conflict norms help establish trust, facilitate healthy debate, and temper confrontations.

You can read here how we arrived at the below conflict norms for Routific:

  • Assume positive intent
  • Be mindful of differences
  • Ensure clarity & closure
  • See something, say something
  • Silence = dissent (More on what this means below)

Leave the room aligned

How often have you been in a meeting where you actually didn’t fully agree with the final decision, but you didn’t speak up? The common misconception is that silence equals consent. At Routific, we assume that silence equals dissent. So we will go around the room and get explicit, verbal buy in. i.e. one-by-one, everyone in the room says ‘yes’ or ‘no’. This gives individuals a chance to speak up, and allows the team to “mine for conflict” — if there seems to be a slight hesitation, we will dig it out. All cards need to be on the table to make the optimal decision, and create the strongest buy-in.

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We also do something called a ‘fist to five’ when making an important decision. It’s a quick and efficient way to get real-time feedback from everyone in the room. On the shared document in front of us, we’ll write down conclusions and next steps. Then, we ask everyone to put their fists up in the air and on the count of three, everyone shows their your level of agreement.

Five fingers means “I’m 100% on board!”; three means “I’m not really sure about this…”; and one means “Nuh-uh. This isn’t right.” Anyone who holds up three fingers or lower gets a chance to explain why.

Chasing the ever elusive target of efficiency is a passion of ours at Routific. If you have any tips or suggestions on running an efficient meeting please share with us in the comments section.